Film review : Isle of Dogs

Tom Browne / 27 March 2018

This imaginative stop-motion animation is dazzling to watch but lacks a bit of soul.

The eternal war between canines and felines is given its most vivid expression in Isle of Dogs, the latest animation from indie filmmaker Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel). Set in Japan 20 years from now, the film sees the dogs very much on the back paws, having been quarantined on an industrial wasteland called Trash Island by the authoritarian Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), apparently to contain a “canine flu” epidemic.

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Things, however, are not so simple. A mock-historical prologue tells us that Kobayashi is only the latest representative of a dog-hating/cat-loving dynasty stretching back many centuries. The flu outbreak, it seems, is a pretext to get rid of the mongrels once and for all, and also to silence any dissenters – most notably Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who claims to have discovered a cure that makes the doggy quarantine unnecessary.

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Further resistance is shown by Kobayashi’s adopted child Atari (Koyu Rankin), who undertakes a solo flight to Trash Island in order to rescue Spots, his faithful pet dog and the first to be exiled. Once there, Atari encounters a gang of canines led by long-term stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), a gruff street fighter with acute abandonment issues. Together they embark on a perilous journey to find Spots and reclaim their rightful place back on the mainland.

 As you can probably tell, this is a shaggy dog story in every sense, and one for which Anderson has assembled a dazzling array of voiceover stars. Aside from Cranston, there’s Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel and Bill Murray, plus solid support from Scarlett Johansson (Chief’s love interest Nutmeg) and even Yoko Ono (voicing none other than Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono, which perhaps gives an indication of the film’s quirky style).

On a technical level, this is a visual tour de force. Although Anderson utilises the same stop-motion aesthetic that he used on 2009’s Fantastic Mr Fox, the feel of the movie owes a bigger debt to Japanese animation classics Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. Composer Alexandre Desplat fills the soundtrack with Manga-style flutes, horns and tinkling pianos, while the dogs themselves – all luscious fur and characterful eyes, staring quizzically at the screen – are beautifully rendered.

But there’s little of the warmth or laugh-out-loud humour to be found in, say, Pixar’s or Aardman’s animations. Instead, it adopts the wry, knowing tone that’s made Anderson the hipster filmmaker of choice. As a result, the finished product is irreverent instead of hilarious, arch instead of thought-provoking, charming instead of heartbreaking. It deserves credit for its willingness to stand out from the pack, but ultimately it’s a stroll in the park rather than a hunt with the hounds.

 Isle of Dogs is in cinemas from 30 March


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